Originally built by Ohio militiamen responding to General Harrison's plea for additional men to come to the defense of their country, a reconstructed Fort Stephenson would later play a pivotal role in repelling the British from Ohio and quelling a massive Native American threat to almost half of Ohio.
Colonel Mills Stephenson sited and built the fort in June of 1812 on the western side of the twisting Sandusky River. He named the small stockaded fort after himself as was the custom. Although the site's location would have been better if placed on the eastern side of the river, Harrison wanted it on the more dangerous and exposed western bank. In either case, the fort's position offered a satisfactory location to keep watch over the Sandusky River (in the center of what is today Fremont). This spot was about as far as contemporary sailing ships could go on the Sanusky River.
During the early days of the War of 1812 or as it was called at the time: The 2nd Revolution, Americans sorely lacked competent leadership. Just after the disastrous defeat in Detroit where 5,000 men were handed over to the British without almost a single shot being fired, it became apparent to both sides, that Ohio and the remaining Northwest Territory was going to play a key role in the outcome of this renewed conflict with Great Britain.
Tecumseh, a great Shawnee leader, was in the process of trying to unite all of the Native Americans from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, in one final push to keep the Americans from taking any more of their land. Early in this war, just after the American's blundered in Detroit, Tecumseh and his warriors suddenly felt emboldened and wanted to strike against the Americans during this time of weakness. Indians all over northwest and central Ohio rose up almost overnight and began attacking not only the American soldiers, but also the settlers. During this uprising, Fort Stephenson was sacked and partially burned by the Indians.
In early 1813, General Harrison sent out a request to governors for additional men to repulse the renewed attack by the Native Americans and he feared, the British. Harrison ordered the construction of Fort Meigs, Fort Seneca that would become Harrison's headquarters, another stockade a little south of Fort Seneca named Fort Ball (located where Tiffin is located today), and rebuilding Fort Stephenson. This would bring the number of fortifications on the Sandusky River to 3.
Later that spring Fort Meigs was attacked by British forces under General Henry Proctor together with a large contingent of Native Americans under Tecumseh. That attack produced no results for the British. They tried once again in July using a little trickery to try and pull the Americans out of Fort Meigs. A mock battle was created by firing their weapons in the air to the east of the fort, hoping it would make the Americans think that a relief party had come under attack. But the Americans weren't fooled and the British once again withdrew from the field unsuccessful in dislodging the Americans from that strategic location along the Maumee River.
Tecumseh was not happy with the effort or planning that Proctor had put into the assaults on Fort Meigs and he pressured Proctor to do more. Perhaps sensing that he was losing the support of the Native Americans, Proctor decided to flank Fort Meigs by bringing a large contingent down the Sandusky River from Lake Erie. Perhaps he thought he could easily take the poorly defended Fort Stephenson or even that they might just surrender as Brigadier General Hull had done the year before in Detroit. Tecumseh led his group by land.
General Harrison, who was now situated at Fort Seneca, sent orders for Major George Croghan at Fort Meigs, to take about 160 men and reclaim Fort Stephenson and make necessary repairs to the damaged fort. Croghan's repairs included not only replacing the burned and damaged sections, but also adding two new blockhouses that greatly improved the forts dependability. Although it lacked important defensive qualities, its location was no less important.
On July 31, one of Harrison's scouting parties spotted a small flotilla of British coming across Sandusky Bay. The scouts immediately sent word back to Harrison at Fort Seneca, stopping long enough at Fort Stephenson, to warn Major Croghan of the approaching British forces. The day before, Major Croghan had spotted a large number of Native Americans gathering on the east side of the Sandusky. He fired several rounds from his single artillery piece, a 6 pound field cannon he called “Old Betsy”. These shots were enough to disperse the Indians. Their appearance was enough to put the fort on alert and he immediately began making preparations for an attack. Croghans suspicions were confirmed when the scouts arrived around noon on July 31st.
As soon as General Harrison received word about the approaching British, he sent word to Croghan to burn and abandon Fort Stephenson and withdraw back to Fort Seneca about 10 miles south. By the time these orders reached the 21 year old Croghan, the British had already landed about mile down river from the fort. It was 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, the 31st. Croghan had already decided to make a stand rather than retreat, so when he received Harrison's orders, he sent a short reply back stating that "We have decided to maintain this place, and by Heaven we can." When General Harrison received this reply, he was incensed and threatened to court martial the young major. He sent Colonel Wells to relieve Croghan of his command and order him to report back to headquarters. But by the time Colonel Wells would arrive at Fort Stephenson, the outcome of the battle would already have been settled.
General Proctor's force consisted of a portion of the 41st Regiment, meaning that it was about 400, plus another 200 Indians. Tecumseh, with almost 2000 more warriors, was positioned along the trail leading from Fort Meigs to Fort Seneca. The plan was to ambush the American re-enforcements they were sure to send when it became known that Fort Stephenson had fallen and that General Harrison was in danger of attack at Fort Seneca.
On this fateful meeting, there were a number of fortuitous elements that came together to defeat the British at this place and time. The numbers were certainly in their favor. They had a battle trained force, they had the high ground, and they outgunned the Americans. But all of this was not enough. Had Major Croghan obeyed his orders, Proctor certainly would have taken the fort. During the initial assault, had the leading attackers been able to prepare their scaling ladders they perhaps might have scale the walls of the fort rather than trying to chop holes in the wall. As it turned out the attack was almost a haphazard affair that would cost him dearly as the battle progressed.
Once General Proctor had off loaded his forces, he sent Colonel Elliott and Captain Chambers along with a group of Native Americans under a flag of truce toward the fort. Major Croghan sent out 2nd Lieutenant Shipp along with 15 others to meet the flag of truce.
After the usual salutations, Colonel Elliott is reported to have said: "I am instructed to demand the instant surrender of the fort, to spare the effusion of blood, which we cannot do should we be under the necessity of reducing it by our powerful force of regulars, Indians, and artillery."
To which 2nd Lieutenant Shipp replied: "My commandant and the garrison are determined to defend the post to the last extremity, and, bury themselves in its ruins, rather than surrender it to any force whatever."
Colonel Dixon then replied: "Look at our immense body of Indians. They cannot be restrained from massacring the whole garrison in the event of our undoubted success. It is a great pity that so fine a young man as you and your commander, should fall into the hands of the savages. Sir, for God's sake, surrender, and prevent the dreadful massacre that will be caused by your resistance!"
Shipp then replied calmly: "When the fort shall be taken, there will be none to massacre. It will not be given up while a man is able to resist." With that, Shipp and his company turned back to the fort, but just as they did, an Indian jumped out from some bushes to try and grab Shipp's sword. It was the British Captain Dixon who stopped Shipp from killing the Indian on the spot.
Major Croghan, who had been watching from the fort, shouted, "Shipp, come in, and we'll blow them all to hell!" The Americans ran back to the fort just as the British opened fire from their gun-boats. The firing continued sporadically throughout the night with the American's returning fire only on occasion. Because the American's only had one cannon at their disposal, after each firing, they would relocate that cannon to another blockhouse and then fire from that position. This continued throughout the night of August 1.
During the night the British moved 3 of their 6-pound cannons to positions in the woods situated northwest of the fort and on slightly higher ground than the fort. Today, there is a sign marking this location. Towards sunrise, the British increased their firing, but the Americans remained quite. This standoff continued throughout the day with no change. As the firing increased in tempo, it became clear to Major Croghan, that the British were beginning to concentrate their fire against the northwest corner of the fort. He ordered bags of sand and sacks of flour to be piled up against the walls of the wooden fort to help deaden the impact of the cannon balls.
The final assault begins
Off in the distance, General Proctor hears some rifle fire. He fears that General Harrison has run into some of his Indian scouts that were positioned on the east side of the river. Rather than wait and face a much larger force, Proctor orders the assault to begin at once. It turns out, that the firing that General Proctor hears, came from his own Indian scouts that were startled when a young farmer accidently stumbled upon their hidden position along the river. When the Indians see the farmer they immediately begin firing their weapons, but the farmer escapes unharmed.
It is now around 4 p.m. on August 2. The British have formed two close columns, led by Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Short and Lieutenant Gordon. They began their advance toward the fort's northwest corner. At the same time 200 grenadiers, under Lieutenant Colonel Warburton, are taking a wide circuit through the woods far to the west making a feigned attack upon the southern front of the fort, where Captain Hunter and his party are stationed.
Private Brown, of the Petersburg Volunteers, with half a dozen of his corps and Pittsburgh Blues, happened to be in the fort at the time. Brown is a skilled gunnery mate, and to him and his crew are intrusted the management of Old Betsy
As the cannon fire continues to echo across the field, the British storming-party under Lieutenant Colonel Short advances through the dense smoke. They finally get to within 15' of the walls before being seen by the Americans.
Kentucky sharpshooters bring down a number of the advancing men and the British line momentarily is thrown into confusion, but Short quickly rallies his men and regains a sense of order. The axe-men bravely push forward up and over the glacis and into the ditch that Croghan had his men dig in preparation for the assault. Lieutenant Colonel Short was at the head of this group whose job it was to chop their way through the damaged walls with axes so that the next wave of men could enter the fort. Short could be heard shouting from the ditch: "Cut away the pickets, my brave boys, and show the damned Yankees no quarter!"
It was at this moment that the long silent Old Betsy would once again be heard. Slugs and grapeshot screamed through the ditch spreading terrible havoc. Few would escape the carnage. This cannon fire was hidden from the British observers standing next to their artillery. Assuming that the first attempt had been successful, they sent a second column that met another volley from Old Betsy along with more rounds coming from the Kentuckians. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Short and Lieutenant Gordon along with 25 privates fell dead in the ditch along with 25 wounded. Only 3 of those advancing were able to escape and make it back to their own lines
When the grenadiers finally arrived at the south gate, they were met by a destructive volley from Hunter's corp that quickly sent them back into the woods. This marked the end of the attack. The entire assault lasted only about 30 minutes. The storm clouds that had been brewing in the west moved on and a gentle breeze finally blew away the battle smoke. All that was left were the wounded and dying piled outside the fort in the ditch. As twilight descended upon the fort, the young Croghan addressed his men with words of praise and thanksgiving. As the night and silence deepened, the groans of the wounded in the ditch along the north wall could be heard inside the fort. Buckets filled with water were let down by ropes. The gates could not be opened for safety reasons during the night, so Croghan told the men to dig a trench so the wounded could be brought inside for treatment.
Thus on the second day of August, 1813, at the age of 21 years, the heroic George Croghan, against a vastly superior force, won the victory that proved to be one of the major turning points in the war of 1812. Once Proctor was defeated at the fort, he withdrew back to Fort Detroit with General Harrison following close behind. It was also shortly after this that Commodore Perry decisively defeated the British fleet in Lake Erie.
For his exploit, George Croghan was brevetted lieutenant colonel by the President of the United States; In 1835 the US Congress awarded him a gold medal; and the ladies of Chillicothe, then the capital of Ohio, presented him with a beautiful sword. Later Croghan was made inspector general with the rank colonel. He also served with General Taylor in the Mexican War of 1846 – 1847. Two years later Colonel Croghan died in New Orleans. In 1906, the remains of Colonel Croghan were disinterred from the family burial plot in Kentucky, and moved to Fremont where it was placed in a special crypt at the base of a monument called the Soldiers' Monument honoring Fremont's veterans and specifically the Battle of Fort Stephenson in 1813.